An analysis of news coverage of mountaintop removal mining

Excerpts from Media and Claimsmaker Framing of Controversial Environmental Issues: A Frame Mapping Analysis of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a doctoral dissertation at Pennsylvania State University, discussed at "Covering Coal," an Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues seminar for Central Appalachian journalists, on Nov. 18, 2005.

By Marc Seamon, professor of journalism, Marshall University, Huntington, W.Va.

Mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia seemed to operate virtually unnoticed and unchallenged for nearly 30 years of its 35-year existence. The emergence of strong, widespread opposition to mountaintop removal mining seemed to coincide with national media coverage of the issue.

Increased concern about mountaintop mining operations occurred in 1997 and 1998, both in the media, by federal agencies, and in notices of intended litigation related to the subject…. Press coverage of public issues with mountaintop mining surfaced beginning in August 1997, in television, periodicals, and newspapers, including U.S. News and World Report, ABC’s ‘Nightline’ program, as well as the Charleston Gazette, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

It is unclear what effect the debut of mountaintop removal mining as an issue in the mass media had and continues to have on the simultaneous development of social discourse and subsequent policy decisions regarding the mining technique. . . .

The media’s role in constructing social realities is especially powerful for large and complex societies. In these places, many of the events that comprise the news are of issues with which local audiences have little or no personal experience. For the majority of Americans, news coming from the mountains of southern West Virginia is definitely outside the bounds of personal experience. Even among West Virginia residents, few live near mountaintop removal mines or would have an occasion to learn about them without mediated information and accounts. Within the state, southern West Virginia or the “downstate” region is culturally isolated from the Northern and Eastern panhandles. So even for people in other areas of the state, the media may be their only source of information regarding mountaintop removal mining. As such, the opinions carried in media messages may be the only, or at least the first, opinions that people encounter. For national audiences, the social construction of their perceptions of reality in West Virginia seems equally likely to rely exclusively on the media. . . .

Setting the agenda

The agenda-setting function of the press has been shown to be especially powerful for environmental issues (Atwater, Salwen & Anderson, 1985). For many environmental issues, media coverage dictates almost exclusively the success or failure of the issue to enter the arena of public discourse. In fact, longitudinal studies have suggested that when it comes to environmental issues, the media agenda is more influential than the public agenda and real-world conditions (Ader, 1995) or the agenda of the scientific community (Maher, 1994) in generating widespread awareness of an issue or of its causes and effects. The agenda-setting effect of the media operates so convincingly with environmental issues because they are unobtrusive for the majority of news consumers (Zucker, 1978). . . .

“The concept of framing is central to an understanding of the media role in shaping environmental debate” (Liebler & Bendix, 1996, p. 54). This is because framing, unlike agenda-setting, provides a way to determine the flavor of media coverage of environmental issues (Maher, 2001). Framing on the part of those making the claims involves selecting and using certain viewpoints and descriptions of an issue while ignoring others (Entman, 1991). Meanwhile, framing on the part of media researchers involves searching texts for the patterns of words, relationships among words, phrases and meanings that claimsmakers have embedded there. While agenda-setting simply provides an indication of which issues are being talked about, framing provides insight into the content and qualities of those messages. This is particularly important for issues such as mountaintop removal mining because environmental issues are generally controversial, with strong viewpoints from at least two opposing sides seeking to have their opinions becomes the dominant public opinion. This competition for frame dominance often unfolds around environmental issues. . . .
Despite the suggested power of the media over public deliberation, the literature suggests that when it comes to scientific matters, a category to which many environmental issues belong, the media are less than savvy. For one thing, news reporters covering science and the environment rely heavily on “information subsidies” such as press kits and expert source testimonials in their stories (Griffin & Dunwoody, 1995). And even with these aides, many scientists complain that reporters misinterpret or otherwise incorrectly report even the most basic details. Also, reporter’s assessments of which environmental issues are the most important do not agree with scientist’s ratings (West, Lewis, Greenberg, Sachsman & Rogers, 2003; Maher, 2000).One of the biggest problems reporters seem to have when covering science or the environment is making the coverage simple and understandable enough for the non-scientific public that is their audience (Masterton, 1992). Some suggest that this difficulty in parlaying understandability to the public stems from the fact that environmental issues are more complex than other commonly mediated issues. In fact, the comparative difficulty of reporting on environmental issues may explain why journalists are often uninterested in environmental reporting and rate it a low priority, even while these same journalists acknowledge that it is high on the public’s priority list (West et al., 2003). . . .

Advancing the issue

With the issue of mountaintop removal mining, at least three developments, or manifestations as Lippmann would call them, occurred near the turn of the 21st century to provide some news pegs and events on which to hang coverage of the issue. Those developments included a federal lawsuit over largest mountaintop removal mine ever proposed, the release of a draft environmental impact statement by the U.S. EPA, and two straight years of deadly flooding that experts directly linked to hydrologic changes resulting from mountaintop removal mining.

The first of these developments involved plans for a huge mountaintop mine in southern West Virginia. In 1998, Arch Coal Inc. began moving forward with plans to open what would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in history. At 3,100 acres, the Spruce No. 1 Mine would turn nearly five square miles of forested mountain land into a virtual moonscape. In light of such a prospect, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed a federal lawsuit to stop the permit for the Spruce Mine, asserting that the valley fills that accompany mountaintop removal mines violate the Clean Water Act . In 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles Hayden II blocked the permit. The mine remains unopened, but Arch Coal has continued to push for permit approval. The legal wrangling over the Spruce Mine permit and the implications of the Clean Water Act for valley fills were a clear and unmistakable news peg. Hayden’s ruling and the promise of appeals and further legal action promised that never again would the issue lack a news peg. The media were free to report, and the claimsmakers were free to compete in an attempt to make their frame the media’s frame, thereby gaining the coveted conduit to public opinion.

What’s more, the spectacular scale of the huge Spruce No. 1 Mine and its distinction as the largest mountaintop mine ever planned helped to put a face on the mountaintop removal mining issue. It provided the “spectacular” manifestation needed to help the media get past the problem of reporting on a seamless environmental issue.

Lawsuits often provide the news peg that results in media coverage of a longstanding environmental risk. . . . At about the same time as the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy lawsuit and the Spruce Mine controversy, another news peg developed that further justified media attention to the mountaintop removal mining issue. The Environmental Protection Agency and four other government agencies had been compiling a huge and very comprehensive environmental impact statement on mountaintop removal mining and valley fills. The report was supposed to be released in 1999, but had fallen behind schedule. By the year 2000, the EPA still had not set a definite date for completion of the document, which had already grown to more than 900 pages. The Charleston Gazette, a newspaper in the heart of Appalachia, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to force the EPA to release the document, finished or not. As a result, the EPA released what it called a preliminary draft of the report. It is perhaps the most thorough report on mountaintop removal mining ever written, and, surprisingly to some, strongly condemns mountaintop removal mining as devastating to plant and animal life, the area’s watersheds, the land itself and the people and communities who live in its shadow. The release of the EPA’s environmental impact statement, even if just in preliminary draft form, was another strong news peg for media coverage of the issue.

Finally, devastating floods in 2001 and 2002 provided both the “spectacular” and the “event-centered” elements needed to make an otherwise chronic but mundane environmental risk newsworthy. The floods were not the result of excessive rainfall, but instead occurred after nothing more than normal early summer rains fell on vast areas of deforested mountaintop removal mine land. Without the natural vegetation, and with a greatly altered topography, the ability of the land to handle even moderate runoff had been severely compromised. As a result, communities downstream of several newly opened mountaintop removal mines were devastated. Significant loss of property and life occurred for two years in a row in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. As a result, hydrologists warned that the effects of large-scale mountaintop removal mining on the watersheds of affected areas may be much more damaging than originally predicted, even by computer models. (Clines, 2002; Radmacher, 2002). The devastating floods washed out entire hollows, destroyed homes and drowned residents. Media coverage of the floods consistently linked the disasters to changes in rainwater runoff resulting from the deforestation of mountaintop mining, giving the media a “spectacular” disaster that just had to be reported. And because the floods were such singular events, not merely chronic abuses spread over time but punctuated moments of terror in which potential risk morphed into deadly reality, they provided the tangible “events” needed to legitimize media coverage of the issue.

The news peg of a federal lawsuit to block a mine permit based on the Clean Water Act, the spectacular size of the huge Spruce No. 1 Mine, and the event-centered nature of not one but two years of deadly flooding downstream from deforested mine areas provided multiple opportunities for media coverage of the mountaintop removal mining issue and subsequently for claimsmakers to compete for that coverage.

Battle for framing the debate

Since the late 1990s, competition among claimsmakers for media attention regarding the mountaintop removal mining issue has been fierce. On one side, environmentalists decry mountaintop removal mining for the countless affronts it poses to the forest, land, water and air. Community activists cite the harm done to Appalachian culture when the mountains—the area’s history—are destroyed. Coal industry officials respond by asserting that mountaintop removal mining should be accepted because of the revenue it generates. Citizens weigh in on all sides, including varying degrees of moderation.

Reporters looking for varying points of view to include in their stories don’t have to search for long, because the strong competition among claimsmakers is never far away. As one of the newer environmental risk issues to surface in the mainstream media, mountaintop removal mining, and the claimsmakers who are invested in it, have benefited from the trial and error of those who went before them.

Since the environmental movement began to take off in the 1960s, journalists and claimsmakers have had plenty of experience dealing with one another on “green” issues. As a result, claimsmakers pursuing the mountaintop removal mining issue are quite media savvy. Organizations such as Environmental Media Services exist solely to “provide journalists with the most current information on environmental issues” (Environmental Media Services, 2003). . . .

What they appear to tell us is that media framing of mountaintop removal mining seems to have become more sophisticated (despite a reduction in the total number of frames) as the arguments the media put forth have evolved. The media do indeed seem to be setting their own frames for the issue. They do not seem to be adopting claimsmaker frames, although overall, the tone of media coverage seems more sympathetic to opponents of mountaintop removal mining than to supporters.

A look at the frames used in the first period of media text shows what appears to be an emphasis on the big, obvious and sensational aspects of mountaintop removal mining — particularly the huge machines used to create the massive mines. Obviously, it takes big machines to tear down a mountain, and journalists from this early period seemed to latch onto that news peg as perhaps a place to begin the story. Thinking about the norms and conventions of journalism, it is easy to see why a reporter might focus on the larger-than-life aspects of the issue, including the size of the machines and the area mined. Those aspects seem to capture the elemental spirit of the early mountaintop removal mining story. Notice the emphasis some of the frames place on machines, trucks, bulldozers and draglines. . . .

[This research] of the first media period would suggest that reporters were taking a textbook approach to journalism and attempting to present both sides equally—or at least to make the distinction between the two sides as clear as possible. . . .

It is interesting that no frames emerged from the media or claimsmaker texts dealing with energy-related terms. Much of the debate about coal hinges on its identity as a primary energy source for America. Supporters claim that coal is an important energy source because of America’s dependence on it. Conversely, opponents argue that the same dependence shows weakness and a lack of sustainability and foresight in America’s energy policy. But neither supporters nor opponents pursued an energy-related frame, despite the fact that it would be easy for both to do so.

Media treatment evolves

Clearly, media framing of the issue changed from the first period to the second. The total number of frames went down, yet the complexity and sophistication of the messages seemed to increase. The media seemed to evolve their own voice on the issue—one that opposes mountaintop removal mining but adopts neither the exact frames nor the patterns of discourse of opposing claimsmakers. . . .

In the current study, opposing claimsmakers seem to have generated a set of relatively successful frames related to water. The flood frame dealt with the deadly flooding. The stream, aquatic and water frames dealt to varying degrees with the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mine Reclamation and Control Act and issues of protecting streams from mining operations. These frames were successful in that they led to an injunction stopping the Spruce No. 1 Mine as well as national media coverage of the issue that turned out to be quite sympathetic to the opponents’ agenda. . . .

This study and others like it can help journalists better understand the role they play and the power they wield in society. Our estimates of the media’s power to influence public opinion have gone from early “magic bullet” theories that overestimated media influence to limited effects paradigms that may have shortchanged them and finally to the middle ground of contemporary media theory that suggests the media may have a moderate degree of power in shaping public life. . . .

The current study seems to support the notion that the media play a powerful but not omnipotent role in discourse surrounding controversial environmental issues. Note that in the current study, the media did not adopt either claimsmaker’s frames for the mountaintop removal mining issue. These results suggest that, in the case of mountaintop removal mining, the media did not adopt themes of convenience made readily available by claimsmakers attempting to advance their agendas. Instead, the media -- as the literature suggests they often do in controversial environmental issues -- acted as watchdogs, operating as adversaries of official sources (the media frames were, in many cases, thematically opposed to the industry frames) while maintaining autonomy from those claimsmakers also operating as adversaries of the coal industry. The ultimate result of the media’s framing decisions seems to be that much of the information the public receives regarding mountaintop removal mining is not and never has been the unfiltered assertions of claimsmakers. As such, the media have retained their influence as gatekeepers for this issue. . . .

Reporters often review past coverage of an issue to get background on which to base their current efforts. Typically, newsroom research of that type involves reading clippings that another reporter has collected or visiting the paper’s archive or the library. Part of the utility in that exercise is to gain a factual understanding of the issue, but there is more. In addition to absorbing facts, reporters are also noticing how an issue was covered. What they do with that information is up to them. They may try to emulate past coverage and match its tone, or they may try to approach it from a fresh angle with a different perspective. Either way, what they are engaged in is a type of framing study. They are considering how the issue was framed in the past, and they are then making framing decisions of their own as they proceed with their reporting.

It has always been hard to persuade journalists to accept and use academic research in the newsgathering and reporting endeavors (Pew Center, 2000). However, frame mapping analysis of current issues can be useful to journalists by providing a richer, more thorough picture of how they and their predecessors have framed an issue. Reporters actively seek insight into such matters already, so convincing them that the need is there should not be a problem. Persuading them to accept the method may be difficult. Many working journalists with no academic research experience may be turned off by the idea of interpreting a frame mapping study such as this one. But if the results can be brought to bear in the newsroom, the effect will be a benefit to journalists trying to discern how issues have been covered in the past.

Many journalists, because of their training, are quite aware of effect that word choice and word usage can have on a message. As people attuned to the importance of word choice and word usage, journalists should be quick to recognize the semantic utility of frame mapping analysis, which is based on the association and co-occurrence of key words in text. Seeing the nuanced patterns of word associations that comprise the results of a frame mapping analysis can help journalists fine-tune their understanding and use of terms for a given issue. This semantic utility, along with the benefit of better discerning thematic trends in past coverage, are the principal implications of frame mapping analysis for journalists.


As of 2004, Marc Seamon had 10 years of professional media experience in newspaper and radio. He has a bachelor’s degree in communication (West Liberty State College 1996), a master’s degree in journalism (West Virginia University, 1998) and a master’s degree in educational psychology (West Virginia University, 2000). His journalism thesis was a longitudinal examination of sensationalism in daily newspapers. His educational psychology thesis was a comparison of instructional effectiveness between intensive and semester-length courses. In 2001, he accepted a Ph.D. fellowship at the Pennsylvania State University, where his research interests evolved to focus on newspaper content analysis and frame mapping analysis. He has numerous publications and conference papers. Seamon works with displacement theory, which is an extension of gatekeeping research that examines the effect of major news events on the rest of the daily news mix. He also works with frame mapping analysis to track claimsmaker and media framing as independent variables that affect public opinion and policy. In 2004, Seamon was hired as assistant professor of journalism at Marshall University. When not working, Seamon enjoys distance running, studying the natural world, and hunting in the woods and fields of West Virginia.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-3168

Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: April 20, 2006